Three Lessons I Learned from ‘The Last Airbender’

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The Last AirbenderA few weeks ago I was explaining how, against all sensible judgement, I was looking forward to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the show (I don’t dislike it, I just haven’t watched it), the trailers had won me over to the point where I was willing to entertain the idea that The Happening was a fluke and that this once buzz-worthy director was back on track. Then I actually watched The Last Airbender and everything changed.

Well, “watched” isn’t even the right word. You don’t simply “watch” The Last Airbender, after all; it’s so damned lifeless that you exhume its corpse for 103 minutes. After walking out of my local megaplex-turned-mausoleum, my initial reaction was that Shyamalan’s latest movie was worthless. Absolutely worthless. Utterly devoid of any net-positive contributions to the world.

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, though, I realize it is not a worthless film. At its core are a handful of fundamental lessons to be learned. Sure, most of them revolve around why Shyamalan should never be allowed near a camera phone yet alone a movie camera, but they’re lessons all the same.

1. Do not trust post-production 3D conversions.

When Clash of the Titans came out, the post-production 3D conversion on it was so gaudy that everyone with two eyeballs declared it to be garbage. However, even though we all knew it was crap, most of us (myself included) wanted to believe Hollywood when they collectively said, “Hey we know Clash looked like a clumsy pop-up book, but that’s just because its post-production 3D was rushed and done on the cheap. [Insert Upcoming Movie Name Here] will be totally different! We don’t come out for months, so we’ve got plenty of time to actually do it right!”

Well, now we know that is all bull. The amount of time means nothing; it’s never going to make a difference. If a film wasn’t planned for 3D, it’s 2D can only be exploited so much. There will inevitably be a ton of scenes that don’t even look like they have any 3D to them because the original 2D scenes were too shallow to add depth to. That’s just the way it is.

Now, that’s not to say that all post-production 3D films will be as atrocious as Airbender’s. If a director plans for 3D ahead of time and shoots the film with a great sense of depth to begin with (as it looks like Michele Gondry has with The Green Hornet), then it could look pretty decent. If they don’t, however, it simply won’t.

Noah Ringer2. Do not judge an actor by their performance in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Technically this was a lesson first learned on The Happening, where actors who have proven their talent in the past walked through the entire film like they had to come in for rehearsals on their day off, but it’s worth modifying for Airbender. A lot is being said of how emotionless of a performance Noah Ringer (who plays Aang in the movie) gives and that we’re basically seeing Jake Lloyd all over again, but knowing how bad Shyamalan has become with actors, I’m not willing to write him off just yet.

Even several of the side characters have proven more talented elsewhere. Aasif Mandvi, who plays the villainous firebender uncle, is hilarious as a correspondent on the Daily Show; here he’s just completely out of his element, a stranger in a strange land. Yes, pretty much everyone in The Last Airbender is dreadful, but this is a case where I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt of having a bad director instead of simply being bad actors.

3. Fireballs, giant lizards and magical tsunamis can be boring.

For me this is the most surprising lesson learned from The Last Airbender. It’s like the old saying: there’s no such thing as a bad BJ. Some are certainly going to be better than others, but the ingredients are so basic that even if they’re not used together exceptionally, it’s still not actually bad. At the very least, what I was expecting from Shyamalan was to deliver a cool movie for kids that would have enough well-done fantasy elements to entertain anyone who likes the genre. I didn’t think it was possible to make battling with fireballs and water tentacles this boring.

Obviously I was wrong.

I don’t want to crap all over the film’s special effects because I haven’t seen them in 2D yet (in 3D they’re often incomprehensible), but even if the tech behind them is top-notch, Shyamalan still doesn’t know how to use it. Fight scenes are often in slow motion without any discernible reason to be in slow motion; no stylistic flourishes, no slowing of the speed so as to appreciate the finer details. Even during a few moments where the fight choreography is quite good, Shyamalan often finds a way to cripple his own good luck, either by editing away from the action or by needlessly prolonging the film with the aforementioned slooooow motion.

There comes a point in Airbender where you’re so bored by these talking exoskeletons (and my God how they talk!) that no amount of digital wizardry can temporarily jolt the mess back to life. This is something other bad fantasy movies, like this year’s Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief, are capable of, but the fact that freezing people, setting them on fire, or threatening to crush them with a wall made of water can be this mundane, this…unfantastical…it genuinely shocks me. But at least now I know for certain that if Shyamalan is the director, everything that can be ruined, will be ruined.